The Church in the Christian Bible

Thomas Söding

The theme of ‘church’ in the New Testament raises four central questions, the answers to which are essential for Christian theology. The questions are there for all, because of the text; but the answers are of different importance, due to the different traditions: (1) what is the relationship of ‘church’ to Israel and to contemporary Judaism? (2) what is its relationship to Jesus and his call to discipleship? (3) how did Christianity develop in its earliest times, and what structures of community building and leadership did it develop? (4) what images and motifs of the church emerge; what theological concepts are developed to represent the nature and mission of the church?

These questions are also those of the first Christians – although they are not always asked and answered directly, rather indirectly. All four questions remain relevant today. The first question is about Jewish-Christian relations, which are shadowed by the history of anti-Judaism but illuminated by the righteousness of God – ‘for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’ (Rom 11:29). The second question becomes a problem in modern times, in view of the suspicion that the church is the institutionalized betrayal of Jesus, as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) wrote, saying that the power of faith would take the place of freedom of belief (The Antichrist 41–50). The third question, on the one hand, compels biblical exegesis to deal with an accusation (which has been repeatedly raised since David Hume, 1711–1776) that missionary monotheism is aggressive because it does not accept the cultures of the people it seeks to convert; on the other hand, it also leads to denominational controversies such as how important the episcopal ministry is for the church, or whether this ministry is testified to in the New Testament or not. The fourth question leads to the examination of what self-understanding the first believers have of themselves and the community they form ‘in Christ’.

The church exists for the sake of the gospel; the gospel is spoken and heard, taught and learned, received and passed on in the church. Therefore, the church is not a subject of the New Testament writings that can be separated from their forms and contents. Methodologically, the connection between the origins and intended receptions of the New Testament writings and their direct and indirect statements about the church must be reconstructed. In this process, significant correlations between the history of the pre-Easter Jesus movement, the post-Easter mission, and the oldest theologies of the church become apparent. The New Testament does not contain a tract ‘church’; there is no single or even dominant concept of ‘church’. Rather, it contains many reflections on the nature and mission of the church, and the common belief – in the one God through the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit – is combined with a variety of forms of being church that do not divide but unite (Alexeev, Karakolis, and Luz 2008). However, from the beginning there are disputes about the true faith which lead to exclusions and inclusions – and from the beginning there are many bridges that connect different traditions, in order to resolve hard conflicts and to create new relationships.

1 Methodological reflection

To understand what ‘church’ means, biblical exegesis has to analyse the processes of church-building found in the New Testament and has to reconstruct the New Testament theologies of the church. However, exegesis must not simply affirm the historical claims and normative demands of New Testament texts. Rather, it must put their coherence and significance to the test. To this end, exegesis has to deal with the various confessional traditions of interpretation that open up different dimensions of the texts. A historically informed, canonically expanded, and hermeneutically problematized exegesis can, on the one hand, describe the most important processes in which the earliest Christians found orientation, what ‘church’ means and what role they can play in it. It can also, on the other hand, provide systematic ecclesiology with a viable basis and new impetus. This hermeneutical goal requires the integration of sociological and cultural research, with a special focus on gender aspects and on the liberation of the poor whom Jesus connected to the gospel in a prophetic mission. It also calls for ecclesiology to be combined with Christology and soteriology, without denying differences between the fields.

New Testament ecclesiology depends on the historical development and the social culture of the earliest Christian communities (Meeks 1983; Theißen 1982), because missionary and pastoral practices both need and create theological positions and perspectives. The root of this correlation between ecclesiology and historic church practice is the fact that the church is not a Platonic ‘idea’ but a movement of the faithful who search for God on Earth and hope for eternity in time (2 Cor 5:5–7). The church as a movement of the faithful emerges as a consequence of both the way of Israel, under the blessing of God, and the mission of Jesus, ushering in the Kingdom of God. Exegesis has to analyse and contextualize the temporal conditionality of biblical images and concepts of church – from gender roles, to prevailing values, to hybrid organizational models – in such a way that new correlations become possible in new historical situations.

The Christian Bible and the church are mutually connected. On one hand, the church, as a reading community of faith, was the decisive factor in the collection and formation of the Christian Bible (Auwers and de Jonge 2003). On the other hand, the biblical narrations, sermons, prayers, and reflections about the church were influenced by the experience of ecclesial life and written in order to influence it (Luz 2014). This process of orientation includes liturgical and catechetical use, sermons and commentaries, prayers and rites (1 Cor 14), works of mercy, and actions of solidarity (1 Cor 11; Jas 2). This process has not stopped to this day, because – according to Jesus – in every era the ‘today’ of the Word of God (Luke 4:21, first witnessed by human voices in the Holy Scriptures) is to be rediscovered according to the faith of the Christian church in her various traditions.

New Testament authors know themselves to be called to write in order to strengthen the faith (cf. Luke 1:4; John 20:30–31) and enable the church to grow (cf. Eph 4:16). In the written, collected, and traded texts, readers are called to deepen the ecclesial community and to advance God’s mission by words and deeds (cf. 1 Pet 2:9). According to Paul (2 Cor 5) and John (John 15:26–27) this process of reading and writing, reflecting and believing, praying and serving is the inspired work of the Holy Spirit (Feldmeier 2020). The result, in the New Testament, is a gallery of colourful images which mirrors the church in its call and reality, its temptations, sins, and repentance, its truth and ethos, metaphors and concepts, stories and arguments, critiques and empowerments.

New Testament ecclesiology is characterized by the processes, crises, and promises of faith, love, and hope (1 Cor 13:13). It is not a neutral description or analysis; it is a testimony of inner participation, a commitment of faith, an approach to communicating the gospel which leads to the characteristic narrations and descriptions, the luminous metaphors and symbols, and the significant liturgies and catechisms of the church in the Christian Bible.

2 The semantic fields of ‘church’ in the Bible

The keyword of New Testament ecclesiology is ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). The translation ‘church’ unites three aspects that belong together but can be focused on differently, depending on the context: (1) the assembly of believers meeting for worship (cf. 1 Cor 11:18); (2) the local community of believers who share their life and faith (cf. Gal 1:2; 2 Thess 1:4; 1 Tim 5:16; Rev 1:4 etc.); and (3) the whole church around the world, the una sancta (‘one holy’, as in ‘the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ of the creed; cf. Matt 16:18; Eph 1:22 etc.). The gathering of the faithful – especially for the celebration of the Eucharist – is, along with service to the poor, the most profound moment in which the church is realized as church (1 Cor 11:23–26). In the local Christian communities, at every place and in every time, the one church is present (cf. Acts 20:28; Eph 4:4–6); every congregation of believers is fully part of the church, even if it is not the whole church (1 Cor 1:2 etc.). The one church of Jesus Christ is not an abstract idea, or a secondary aspect of the group’s purpose, but the very identity of each community, linked to the people of God – Israel. When the faithful come together in order to give glory to the one God (1 Cor 8:5–6) they realize the mission of the one people of God to which they belong.

Most of the references to ekklesia are found in the Corpus Paulinum and in Acts. It seems that the early Christian community of Jerusalem coined the term as a self-designation (cf. Acts 8:1.3; 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13; Phil 3:6). Paul picked up this name and gave it to all the communities which he founded (1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; Phlm 2) – not schematically (cf. Phil 1:1 and Col 1:1; Eph 1:1) but characteristically. His language, which was influenced by Judaeo-Christian traditions, radiated to other traditions (Acts 14:23.27; Heb 12:23; Jas 5:14; 3 John 9; Rev 2–3). The result is that, over time, ekklesia has become the keyword of the church.

However, the only references to ekklesia in the Jesus tradition are in the Gospel of Matthew. The word occurs twice, once in the famous promise of Jesus – ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church’ (16:18) – and once in the call to the disciples to do all that is possible to reconcile a sinful brother or sister and then, as a last resort, to bring the case before the ekklesia (Matt 18:17), i.e. the ‘church’ (KJV; NRSV) or the ‘community’ (NJB).

The distribution of the term proves that ‘church’ is not a key word of Jesus’ proclamation but of the Easter mission embodied in Acts and in Paul’s letters. It is typical that the genitive ‘of God’ (τοῦ θεοῦ) is attached to ‘church’ in prominent places (cf. Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:13; 1 Tim 3:5; cf. 3:15). This phrase has roots in the Septuagint (LXX). Two basic Hebrew words stand out. One, עֲדָת (edah), is usually translated as synagoge in the LXX (in English normally ‘congregation’). The other, קְהַל (qehal), is usually translated as ekklesia (in English, usually ‘assembly’). Synagoge emphasizes the idea that God has constituted his people as a community of law and worship (Jos 22:16–17; Ps 74:2; cf. Num 22:17); ‘ekklesia’ highlights that Israel is summoned by God to hear his word, which calls them into being and commits them to the Torah (Deut 5:22; 9:10; 10:4; cf. Acts 7:38). Israel, as ekklesia, is called to be the site of God’s presence in the midst of the world; it is called to praise his name (Ps 22:23 [Heb 2:12]) and to fight for him (Judg 20:2), confident in his strength (1 Sam 17:47). However, the Hebrew phrase qehal YHWH is translated as an ‘assembly of ‘the Lord’ (ekklesia kyriou). The Hebrew phrase qehal el, for which the translation ekklesia theou (assembly of God) suggests itself, is missed in the Bible, however, it is attested in Qumran (1QM 4:10; 1QSa 1:25). Those who were justified by grace and called to renew their life according to the theology of the ‘teacher of righteousness’ know themselves united in the congregation of Qumran, the ‘true’ Israel, formed in the midst of the ‘false’ Israel represented by the Jerusalem Sadducees from whom the Qumran community removed themselves.

The language is a clear indicator: the New Testament’s keyword ekklesia tou theou is the Greek version of a Hebrew self-description of Jews to characterize their call, mission, identity, and responsibility to love God (Deut 6:4–5) and do his will according to the Torah. The special accent of the New Testament wording has a double meaning, both messianic and eschatological. The community of believers understand themselves as the eschatological people of God, gathered by God himself in the name of Jesus Christ. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, it is characteristic that the faithful hope for the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15). They set out to proclaim the one God for all, among all peoples (Matt 28:19–20; Acts 1:8), and to establish the one church for all (Eph 3:10–13; 4:4–6).

Ekklesia is the most important designation of the church, but by no means the only one. The ‘people of God’ is an Old Testament concept adapted in the New Testament (Rom 9:25–26 [Hos 2:25 and 2:1]; Heb 4:9), and the New Testament also uses a number of metaphors to imagine the church (Minear 2007): the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and the city on a hill (Matt 5:13–16); the sheepfold (John 10:1–10) and flock (John 10:11–21); the olive tree (Rom 11:13–26); the vineyard (Mark 12:1–9 and parallels) and the vine and its branches (John 15:5); the boat (Matt 8:23–27); and the family (Mark 3:31–35); the garden and the building (1 Cor 3:9; cf. Matt 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet 2:5–7; Ps 118:22); the temple (1 Cor 3:17; cf. 1 Tim 3:15); the tabernacle (Rev 21:3); the body of Christ (Rom 12:4–6; 1 Cor 12:12–27); the pilgrimage (Heb 11); the ‘Jerusalem from above’ as the ‘mother’ of all the faithful (Gal 4:26; cf. Rev 12:17); and the bride of the Messiah (Rev 19:7; 21:2). The list can be continued. The diversity and richness of the images reflect the abundance of forms, motifs, and contexts in which the church emerges and develops – not without internal and external difficulties. The church is shaped by specific Christian rites, primarily baptism (Gal 3:25–26) and the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23–26). The lived ecclesiology of the New Testament churches includes social projects such as the community of goods (Acts 2:43–47; 4:32–37), the installation of deacons for the care of the Hellenistic widows (Acts 6:1–7), the collection for the ‘poor’ in Jerusalem (Rom 15:26; 1 Cor 16:1–2; 2 Cor 8–9; Gal 2:10), the critique by St Paul of the discrimination within the community in the Corinthian celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17–34), or the exhortation of James in favour of respect to the weak (Jas 2:1–13).

However, the semantic field is not limited to texts where the church explicitly becomes the subject. According to the gospels, the discipleship of Jesus is the most important indicator of a shared life in communion with the Messiah (Mark 1:16–20 and parallels, etc.). The call of the twelve disciples (Mark 3:13–19 and parallels) is a prophetic sign that Jesus has come to gather all human beings who belong to Israel (cf. Luke 19:1–10), especially the poor, the sinners, and the marginalized (cf. John 11:52). During his public ministry, Jesus celebrated banquets that were intended to give a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God and symbolically anticipate his community (Mark 2:13–17 and parallels, etc.). ‘On the night he was betrayed’ (1 Cor 11:23), Jesus celebrated a Last Supper with his disciples in order to give them bread and wine as his own body and blood (Mark 14:22–25 and parallels), so that they could share his salvation in death and resurrection. John 21 tells of a common breakfast after the rich catch of fish; this early morning meal gives a foretaste of eternal communion in the brief moment of reunion that inspires the disciples to refresh the good relationship between gathering and missionary work.

‘Church’ is not merely one topic among others in the New Testament. It depends on greater topics like the Kingdom of God, the gospel, eternal life, mission, and salvation. But ‘church’ holds together personal faith and social cohesion ‘in Christ’; the church is the home of those who commemorate Jesus as Messiah, confess him as Son of God, and proclaim him as ‘Saviour of the world’ (cf. John 4:42). The church is the place where the Bible of Israel is received and the New Testament texts are written; at the same time the church is the address, the transmitter, and the ideal reader of the Bible. Therefore, the biblical witness of the Word of God is the touchstone of the church.

3 The roots of the church in Israel

Traditionally, exegesis on the subject of church (Schweizer 1961; Schnackenburg 1974; Roloff 1993) does not begin until the New Testament, but the ‘church’ is rooted in Israel (Lohfink 1998). According to recent research, Judaism and Christianity are not yet two separate religions in New Testament times (Dunn 2015), while others (Schnelle 2019) underline the two’s common roots but highlight the processes of separation, pushed by the Christian proclamation of the crucified Lord (1 Cor 1:18–23) and the mission to the Gentiles without circumcision (Gal 1:13–2:2).

3.1 The Bible of Israel as source of ecclesiology

The first part of the Christian Bible, the so-called Old Testament, is of fundamental importance for Christian ecclesiology (Moberly 2018), even though its importance is often overlooked. New Testament proclamation of the gospel is ‘according to the scriptures’ (1 Cor 15:3–5). The first Christians participated in the Jewish formation of the ‘holy scriptures’ (cf. 1 Cor 15:3–5; Dohmen and Stemberger 2019), a process which integrated the writing, editing, and collecting of new texts. The ‘scriptures’ of Israel were received as promise by the people of God to walk the way of life which leads through death and resurrection to eternal life. They were received in their Hebrew originals and in their Greek translations; for both the New Testament writings and the early Christian communities the original Greek books of the Septuagint (with some open borders) belong to the Bible (Kreuzer 2016).

The ecclesial reception of ‘Holy Scripture’ is a response to abundant theological testimonies found in the biblical books. It is not an automatic or merely passive response, but rather a creative process of listening, reading, understanding, and transforming the texts into new constellations. This process responds to the direct and indirect claims of the texts that they must be read and interpreted in such a way that their message is perceived. Differences and deviations, tensions and contradictions between the biblical texts are embraced by the canon and opened up for critical debate about the truth and freedom of faith. According to St Paul, the main medium of faith communication is not the ‘letter’, but the ‘Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:6), but the Holy Spirit inspires human beings to witness to the Word of God in their human words and to read these texts as expressions of true faith.

The reading processes which are grounded in and stimulated by biblical texts call for a personal response, but faith does not isolate individuals. Indeed, the gospel connects them with other believers who share the same communion with Jesus Christ (1 Cor 10:16–17). Therefore, very often, the plural predominates in the addresses to the churches (cf. 1 Cor 16:21–24 etc.) as well as in textual testimonies (cf. John 1:14 etc.). The liturgy of the local communities is one of the most important reception forums (cf. 1 Thess 5:25–28). The catechesis which the biblical texts stimulate and reflect is a communal teaching and learning (Heb 5:12–6:3). The service for the poor strengthens both the honour of the marginalized and the spirit of solidarity in the community (Jas 2:1–13).

3.2 Ecclesiological perspectives of the Old Testament

Writing about the church in the Old Testament, St Augustine profiled more widespread convictions of the ‘Church from Abel’ (ecclesia ab Abel; City of God 15.17; cf. Heb 11:4) and a typological interpretation of the salvation of Noah from the flood (Sermon 264.5; On Baptism 7; cf. 1 Pet 3:20–21; 2 Pet 2:5), the passage through the Red Sea (Sermon 213; cf. 1 Cor 10:1–2) and the manna in the wilderness (Johannem tractatus 25.12; cf. 1 Cor 10:3–13). According to the Old Testament writings themselves, a lot of different aspects must be mentioned; four perspectives should be marked.

The election of Israel is God’s will, God’s grace, God’s call: ‘For the Lord has chosen Jacob for himself, Israel as his own possession’ (Ps 135:4). In Genesis, the patriarchal narratives tell of how God’s call – from Abraham and Sarah, through Isaac and Rebekah, to Jacob/Israel and Rachel – transmits his blessings on the children of Israel. They are to be numerous ‘like the sand of the sea’ (Gen 32:13 etc.); they are to bear witness to the belief in the one and only God (Deut 6:4–5) in the midst of the nations, even if they were weak (Exod 34:24 etc.). Starting with slavery in Egypt, this election is challenged again and again, but from the time of the exodus it is also repeatedly confirmed by God (Hos 11). The anointing of David as king (1 Sam 16) and the promise of a son who will rule an eternal kingdom (2 Sam 7) are deeply involved in this perspective of election. It is called into question again by the rise of the pagan empires and Israel’s defeats by overwhelming opponents, most notably by the Babylonians who took the Israelites into exile. But the election is renewed again by the righteousness of God who opens the horizon for hope (Ezek 20:25). This is the vivid memory of the righteous (Esth 4:17; 2 Macc 1:25), affirmed in the New Testament (cf. Acts 13:17; Rom 11:2).

The universal horizon of Israel’s election is constitutive from the very beginning. The call of Abraham is connected with God’s promise: ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Gen 12:3), i.e. in his ‘offspring’ (Gen 22:17; cf. Gal 3:16). The election of Israel aims to preserve, testify to, and realize this universal promise of blessing. According to Ps 100, ‘all the earth’ is invited to give thanks while becoming a part of the pilgrimage of the people of God which enters the gates of the holy temple. The salvation visions of the prophets transcend the frontiers of time and space in order to proclaim the fulfilled kingdom of God as a home for all nations (Isa 25:6–8; 49:1–13). In the book of Daniel, it is the prophet, the speaker of Israel, who is able to interpret the dreams of the Babylonian king to mean that the series of earthly kingly reigns will come definitely to an end and only the kingdom of God will remain (Dan 2:44). It is this eschatological hope which opens the field for the proclamation of Jesus (Mark 1:14–15) and the mission of the church to all nations (Matt 28:16–20; Acts 1:3–8). It is wrong to construct a dichotomy between the particularity of the Jewish and the universality of the Christian tradition; the discipleship of Jesus recalls Israel’s original call to bear witness to the universal salvific will of God in the heart of the people of God.

The institutions of Israel testify to the mission of the people of Israel. Significant institutions are the Torah, which needs interpretation; the kingdom of David, along with a promise of an eschatological renewal of the kingship (2 Sam 7:14–16); and the temple – with the priesthood, the sacrifices, and the liturgy. All these aspects come together in the narrated call of God, appropriate to the covenant he makes with his people: ‘You shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’ (Exod 19:5–6; cf. 1 Pet 2:9). The people of God belongs to God himself; it combines participation in God’s power and God’s holiness. One possible consequence is that Levitical priests can assume political leadership functions; but another possible consequence is that a distinction is made between political and religious formation (Deut 17:8–20). In the Second Temple period, the former model prevailed (see Ezra/Nehemiah), but harsh criticism of the corruption of the high priestly families opened up the prospect of an alternative in opposition circles (see 1 and 2 Macc). The Torah is the document of the covenant that establishes Israel’s allegiance to God and commits the people to obey God’s commandments (Deut 30:15–20). The temple is placed on Zion (Sir 36:19) where God ‘came to dwell’ (Ps 74:2), the place of help (Ps 20:3), hope (Ps 65:2), grace (Ps 102:14), and joy (Ps 48:12; 97:8). The people of Israel are called as the twelve tribes, corresponding to the twelve sons of Jacob (Gen 49). Among them, the land is distributed in an ideal constellation (Josh 24; Judges 19–21). Even though many tribes have perished in the turmoil of history, there is still hope for the restoration of the whole of God’s people of the twelve tribes, as the Qumran texts on the one hand and the New Testament on the other reflect.

The history of Israel is an essential dimension of the theology of the people of God (Frevel 2018). The Bible vividly tells of the calling of Abraham, life in the land of Canaan, the exodus, the taking of the promised land, the establishment of kingship, the ups and downs of the history of the Northern and Southern kingdoms, the oppression and depression of the Babylonian exile, and the arduous new start in the land of the fathers. It is possible, and to some extent probable, that older traditions have been incorporated into the narratives. But, because of the literary design, the age of the texts, and the theological interests of the authors, a historicist reading is not possible. What is more important is that this story exists, that much is in flux and has developed historically, that reforms are part of this story, and that it can be told as an ongoing dialogue between God and the people of Israel. The speakers are the prophets, the wise and elders, and later on the scribes. It is a living history, intended to be permanently written down, which is inscribed in the biblical texts; orientation for the present through the living memory of the past. The New Testament takes part in that vivid reception by representation of the past in the present, and the orientation of the present time through memorized history. For Second Temple Judaism, the diaspora acquired a special importance because many Jews lived outside the country, among the Greeks, with new challenges to express and explain the faith.

To emphasize the rootedness of the church in Israel is not to appropriate Israel’s history and theology for the church. The plurality of Israel, which is correlated to God’s uniqueness and welcomes the fullness of his mercy, shows the possibility of different forms of reception of the Israelite heritage. According to the New Testament, those who believe in Jesus Christ and belong to the church see themselves as part of Israel (Dunn 2015). Some live their faith as born Jews who see belief in Jesus Christ as a consequence of their Judaism (Gal 2:15–16); others see themselves as former Gentiles who came from worshipping many gods to believing in the living God, Jesus Christ (1 Thess 1:8–10).

3.3 Early Jewish concepts of the people of God

The richness of Old Testament ecclesiology, and the challenges of historical varieties of experience, inspire different concepts of the people of God which are characteristic for early Judaism. Three typical examples are selected:

The Maccabean Revolt (Avemarie et al. 2017) aims to eliminate the corruption of the priesthood through the spirit of Hellenism; the corrupt priesthood is to be replaced by a free Israel that bows solely to the will of God (1–2 Macc). The Zealot movement radicalizes this approach by attacking the Romans in an attempt to establish a theocracy (Josephus, Antiquitates XVIII 1.6).

In Qumran, texts of Jewish reform theology were found that turn away from the Sadducees – who are criticized as illegitimate rulers of the temple – to replace an Israel radically renewed by God’s grace, in the tradition of the ‘sacred remnant’ of prophetic tradition (1 QS; 1 QSa; 1 QM; vgl. CD 1.3–11).

The Pharisaic movement aims at the renewal of the whole people through religious formation (PsSal 17), which leads to the observance of the priestly purity laws, and implementation of the Holiness Law (Lev 19).

The biggest task is the preservation and development of Jewish identity in the face of internal tensions and external pressures (see the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs) and in the crises of the time, which are to be lifted in God’s historical power (see Jubilees).

4 The beginning of the church in the mission of Jesus

Jesus came in order to proclaim the Kingdom of God, which ‘has come near’ (Mark 1:14–15; Matt 4:17; cf. Matt 10:7; Luke 10:9.11). Consequently, he calls for repentance and faith: repentance understood as confession of sins and expectation of the Messiah, faith as a unification of trusting in God and confessing Jesus as that Messiah, receiving the word of Jesus as the gospel of God and living in conformity with Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, the next step is Jesus’ call of Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, and John into his discipleship: ‘Follow me and I will make you into fishers for people’ (Mark 1:17). This call expresses three essential dimensions of discipleship which are essential for the church: (1) the priority of Jesus who is both teacher and preacher, prophet and saviour; (2) community with Jesus, being together with him and ‘behind’ him, following in his footsteps both literally and symbolically; (3) sharing his mission to search for and find human beings, proclaiming the gospel to them and opening for them the door to the Kingdom of God (cf. Mark 6:6–13 par.; Luke 10:1–16). The fellowship of the disciples with Jesus is a fellowship experienced in walking and living, in listening and learning, and in working as labourers in God’s harvest (Luke 10:2). It also means becoming part of a community of suffering, insofar as the disciples are called to take up their cross (Mark 8:34 and parallels). Beyond their failure when they escape at the moment of Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:50) and Peter denies Jesus (Mark 14:66–72), the Easter appearances will open a new way of following Jesus to them (Mark 14:28 par.). Before and after Easter, discipleship is the basic expression of belonging to Jesus, holding together, and following his commandments (Matt 28:16–20 etc.). Therefore, discipleship is the very heart of the church. The Gospel writers narrated Jesus’ words and actions from pre-Easter discipleship perspectives, in order to make them transparent for post-Easter transformations. The church is at all times and in all places the community of those who follow Jesus; they worship him as their master; they listen to his message; they pray with his words; they see God and their neighbours with the eyes of Jesus; they participate in his ministry. More precisely, this is by no means always their reality, but is from the beginning and always anew their vocation.

Post-Easter, there is not a bodily but a spiritual nearness of Jesus, the risen Lord. He is one and the same Jesus, before and after Easter. According to the Gospel of Mark, he will ‘go ahead’ of the disciples and Peter in order to call them anew into his discipleship (Mark 16:8; cf. 14:28) – an ecclesial principle for all time (Mark 13:10; 14:9). According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus promised on the mountain of resurrection that ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matt 28:20). According to Luke, Jesus blessed his disciples before he was ‘carried up to heaven’ (Luke 24:50–51) and promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit who would inspire them to preach the gospel all over the world (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). According to the John’s Gospel, Jesus ‘breathed on’ his disciples and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained’ (John 20:22–23). As much as the traditions differ, they agree that, in the church, the person and mission of Jesus remain present, because Jesus makes himself present and thus makes the church the church.

The two uses of ‘ekklesia’ in the Gospel of Matthew connect the memory of Jesus’ pre-Easter mission with the orientation of the post-Easter church towards Jesus. The first reference is the famous promise to Simon: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church’ (Matt 16:18). The verb is future tense. Jesus refers forwards with this word into the time after Easter, where Simon as Peter will play a supporting role for the church, because she is founded on the witness of the apostles, especially Peter’s confession of Christ (Matt 16:16). Peter’s role as ‘rock’ is connected with the ‘keys of the kingdom of heaven’, the competence of binding and losing (Matt 16:19). It is an old and ever new matter of debate whether only a personal commissioning of Simon Peter takes place here or whether a continuing Petrine ministry is implied (Luz 1990: 450–483). The second reference is a part of Jesus’ discourse about brotherhood. Jesus talks about the problem of how to deal with sinners in the community of disciples. He pleads for trying everything to bring them to repentance. As a last resort, after many personal attempts, he says, according to the Gospel: ‘Tell it to the church’ (Matt 18:17), i.e. the community of believers. The power to bind and loose also belongs to them, who are represented by the disciples (Matt 18:18). In this tradition the evangelist represents an ideal perspective at the time of Jesus which is transparent for post-Easter ecclesial communities. For Matthew, the ‘church’, as assembly and as people of God, is important for Jesus who calls it to discipleship in order to form the community of faith. According to the Gospel of Matthew, which became the first gospel in the canonical order, ‘church’ is a subject of Jesus’ teaching, because the kingdom of God is assigned to the people of God, which Jesus affirmed and opened to all peoples (Matt 28:18–20).

5 The earliest history of church and mission

The church in New Testament times is very small, but wants to grow; it knows itself sent to become a church for all, but must recognize that from the beginning it falls far short of the claim that follows from the promise. Acts and the New Testament letters are the main sources for a historical reconstruction of the first period of mission and church building (Koch 2014; Dunn 2009). Some Jewish sources, especially Josephus with his Antiquitates Iudaicae, and Roman authors like Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger, help to check the plausibility of the biblical account and to add some details. The New Testament texts are not neutral but engaged. They emerge in the midst of the process they describe and reflect.

5.1 The testimony of Acts

In Acts, Luke describes a scheme of mission which is structured by the words of the resurrected Jesus: ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). The mission in Jerusalem was the vocation of the entire faith community, starting with Pentecost (Acts 1–7); the mission in Samaria started with Philip (Acts 8:2–25). The breakthrough to the mission to the Gentiles was the call of Peter (Acts 10:1–11:18). The organization of the Gentile mission rooted in Antioch (Acts 11:19–26) was pushed forward mainly by Paul, in three journeys (Acts 13:4–14:28; 15:36–18:22; 18:23–21:17), the first of which he carried out as Barnabas’ junior partner. At every stage, the mission was aimed not only at the conversion of individuals but at the gathering of communities who share their lives because they share their faith (Alexander 2018).

Because of the strong literary stylization, a historicizing interpretation of Acts is inappropriate; however, due to Luke’s intensive use of sources, a historical reference is difficult to deny. In examining an individual case the result will not always be able to be presented in the binary of fact and fiction, but will have to reckon with creative memory, literary compression, and theological orientation. The Acts of the Apostles forms only a small section of missionary history, because it does not tell us about Egypt, North Africa, Persia, or the Arabian Peninsula, although Christian congregations were established there very early on (cf. Acts 2:9–11). Nevertheless, the Acts of the Apostles gives an accurate impression of missionary history in essential aspects. There was an early beginning of public proclamation in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Shavuot). It quickly led to the formation of the first congregations, which gathered in houses (Acts 2:42–47 etc.) according to the Jewish model, partly organized by country of origin and language groups (cf. Acts 6:1–7). They understood themselves as part of the Jewish community (Dunn 2015), differentiated from other Jewish groups and inwardly united by faith in Jesus Christ which led to baptism (Acts 2:38). They were persecuted by the High Priests in the Jewish council of the Sanhedrin but remained true to the faith (cf. Acts 4:1–22 etc.). Stephen became the first martyr, falsely accused of temple desecration, stoned to death by an inflamed crowd (Acts 6:8–8:3). According to Luke, most believers were expelled from Jerusalem, while the ‘apostles’ remained (Acts 8:1). However, the persecutions did not stop (Acts 12:1–19). According to Eusebius, the members of the early church rejected the Zealot rebellion, whereupon they had to emigrate to Pella in Transjordan (Historia Ecclesiastica III 5).

The earliest church was not only missionary but also very active in charity (Hume 2011). One example is the ‘community of goods’, which Luke emphasizes as the realization of Old Testament promises and Hellenistic ideals of friendship (Acts 2:43–47; 4:32–37). For Luke, the community of Jerusalem is a model for all Christian congregations and provides orientation on what it means to be the church.

The missionary dynamics of Acts reflect a three-step opening of the door to the categories of Godfearers and non-Jews. (1) Peter followed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that God himself has already chosen the faithful uncircumcised in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:36–38); Peter defended this insight against criticism in Jerusalem (Acts 11:1–18). (2) Some of the persecuted Hellenists, i.e. Greek-speaking Christian Jews, came from Jerusalem to Antioch in Syria and started a mission among the Greeks, i.e. non-Jews (Acts 11:20–21); ‘and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians”’ (Acts 11:26). (3) From Antioch the mission project started in order to proclaim the gospel programmatically in new regions, new cultures, and new forms (Acts 13:1–3). The first journey Luke tells us about (Söding 2020) leads to Cyprus, Pisidia, and Lycaonia (Acts 13:1–14:28); it includes the appointment of presbyters at the head of the newly-founded local churches on the return journey (Acts 14:23). The second and third journeys which Luke describes widen the horizon to major regions in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece (15:36–21:17). There, in central places like Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus – as well as in smaller towns like Troas or Philippi or in rural regions like Galatia and Euboea – Paul, together with his co-operators in his mission team, founded local churches and taught them to find their own way of growing. A special case is the church of Rome, where faithful Jews were expelled under the Emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2; Suetonius, Claudius 25:4) in 49 CE. Paul did not found the church there, but ultimately visited the city as a prisoner and preached the gospel while under house arrest (Acts 28:16–31).

The most important impulse for the further development of the Christian communities is the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1–32; cf. Gal 2:1–10). Luke testifies both to a deep inner-church conflict and to a forward-looking solution in the sensitive Jewish-Christian relationships which, at his time, could not yet be projected onto two different ‘religions’. In Jewish – especially Pharisaic – groups of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem, the critique emerged that male Gentiles needed circumcision if they wished to become full members of the elected people of God in the name of Jesus Christ. This critique is also present in the background of Galatians and Phil 3. It recalls Genesis 17, which says that Abraham received the commandment of circumcision as sign of the covenant. But the experience of Peter was that the sphere of action of the Holy Spirit is wider than Judaism, and that justification is linked to faith, not to circumcision (Acts 15:9–11). So the decision that circumcision is not necessary is well-founded, while consideration towards the Jews outside and inside the church is appropriate (Acts 15:22–29).

5.2 The testimony of the New Testament letters

The authentic letters of St Paul, written decades before the Acts of the Apostles, reflect the founding of local churches (1 Thess), attempts to solve problems in ecclesial life (1 and 2 Cor; Gal; Phil; Phlm) and prepare for new fields of mission (Rom). In these letters, Paul answers questions from the churches (1 Thess 4; 1 Cor), deals with criticism of his missionary theology and practice (2 Cor; Gal; Phil 3), and tries to find support for further mission plans (Rom). He motivates and reflects dynamic processes of outer and inner growth (1 Cor 14), organizes ecclesial projects of solidarity (2 Cor 8–9 etc.), strengthens the unity of the church in its diversity of vocations (1 Cor 12:12–27; Rom 12:4–6), and builds bridges between different local churches (1 Thess 1–3; 1 Cor 16; Rom 1:1–17). He connects the liturgy with serving the poor (1 Cor 11:17–34), the teaching of the truth of salvation with freedom of belief (Gal 2:1–10; 5:1–14), and the hope of salvation with trust in the presence of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 5). He organizes the church service (1 Cor 11–14), deepens the church’s teaching (1 Cor 1–4, 15; Rom 1–11), and motivates the diaconal commitment of the congregations in signs of charity (1 Thess 4:1–11; Gal 5; Rom 12–14). In the same line he reflects the nature and purpose of the church (see section 6.1).

The Pauline letters document and reflect (Rom 15:14–29) the strategy of Paul’s mission: to proclaim Jesus as Lord in new places and to connect these local communities with Jerusalem where the mission is rooted. His plan is that even a small community, which lives out the faith in a social centre of the world, will become attractive for others so that it can flourish, grow, and prosper; both in the city, where they can plant new house churches in other neighbourhoods, and in the countryside surrounding the city (cf. 2 Cor 1:2). In this way the church has become a vivid organism with a great plurality of languages, challenges, calls, and actions. Basic to the ecclesial life and the organization of leadership are the charismata – the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12; Rom 12:3–8; cf. Eph 4:7–12). These produce a great variety of forms of commitment, but also require intensive cooperation, which presupposes mutual recognition.

In Gal 3:28, the Apostle recalls the social tensions and discriminations which were overcome through faith in baptism: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female’. Indeed, it is typical for the Pauline congregations – and for other early Christian congregations – that Jews and Gentiles came together in the same faith (Rom 11:13–24; Tiwald 2016). It is also typical that rich and poor are united in the church (1 Cor 1:23–25; Fiensy 2014). Last but not least, male and female believers do belong together as brothers and sisters in the same church (1 Cor 11:2–16; Schüssler-Fiorenza 1995). The reason for this unification is the universal will of God for salvation, realized by Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection (2 Cor 5:14–15; Rom 5:12–21). The result is the practice of love among the faithful and beyond the frontiers of the congregations (Rom 12:9–21; Gal 6:10; 1 Cor 13).

In Romans 9–11, Paul discusses the relation between the mission of the Jews and the mission of the Christians. They both have the same root; they both have the shared hope of salvation because of God’s grace and justice, his faithfulness to his promises (Rom 11:25–36); as long as time lasts, there is a dialectic between the attractiveness of the church mission for the Gentiles and the ‘no’ to Jesus of the great majority of Jews who see a contradiction in the confession of the one God and faith in Christ (Rom 10:2). Therefore, peace, not conflict, between Jews and Christians must be the consequence of justification by faith.

In some of the later letters which were written in the name of St Paul, the church becomes a main topic. This is the case in Ephesians (Perkins 2000). The purpose of the letter is the reflection on the significance of the fact that Gentiles through faith get free entrance to the church and earn full membership in the people of God ‘in Christ’ (Eph 2:11–22). While in the original Pauline letters this recognition and unification is a matter of debate, in Ephesians the historical development that led to the integration of the Gentile Christians is an object of self-assurance. It is associated with the creation of new ministries which serve on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20–21): evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Eph 4:11). They should support the ministry of the faithful, to attain ‘full maturity with the fullness of Christ himself’ (Eph 4:13). In the pastoral epistles, the ministry of the bishop (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:6–7), assisted by deacons (1 Tim 3:8–13), enables professional leadership of the local church (Stewart 2014). Even if there are uncertainties, the hypothesis can be ventured in the light of later developments: a bishop is ordained by the laying on of hands and prayer by the Apostle (2 Tim 1:6) or presbyters (1 Tim 4:14); he should guide the church through teaching; he needs theological competence and social skills (1 Tim 4:12–5:2); he should be respected in public (1 Tim 3:7), he cooperates with deacons (1 Tim 3:8–13; cf. Phil 1:1). The ‘elders’ (presbyteroi; 1 Tim 5:17–22; Titus 1:5) work together with the bishop of a city; a bishop is elected from among the ‘elders’. However, in the Pastoral Epistles women are pushed back from the ecclesiastical public sphere into the domestic private sphere (1 Tim 2:8–15), even though ‘widows’ can play an important role in the social life of a local church (1 Tim 5:3–16). The model of the Pastoral Epistles was a new one that had a very strong impact and, after a long incubation period, determined much of the history of the early church. Some see this development as a stringent consequence (Sullivan 2011), others as a fall from the original freedom (Schulz 1976), still others as a model that also allows for other models (Schmeller, Ebner, and Hoppe 2010).

5.3 The building of faith communities

The faithful usually met in private houses (Act 16:15; 18:7–8) and apartments (Act 20:7–12), but could also meet in club houses or other locations (Adams 2016). The forms of organization and activities depend heavily on the limited sizes and the local and regional networks (2 Cor 1:1; Col 4:16). The focus of Paul’s mission was the cities (1 Cor 1:1; 1 Thess 1:1). There the house churches could spread in the city quarters (Rom 16:1), but also reach the surrounding area; therefore, not only cities but also rural areas are places where Christian communities are formed (Tiwald and Zangenberg 2021). They start out as a minority but want to grow – internally and externally.

The letters of the Pauline corpus, together with 1 Peter and the Acts of the Apostles, have common tradition roots, but different occasions, points of view, perspectives, interests, and literary genres. Therefore, it is not a monochromatic but a polychromatic image of the history of the missionary church to which the New Testament testifies. However, baptism (cf. Acts 2:41; Gal 3:26–28 etc.) and the Eucharist (cf. Acts 19:7–12; 1 Cor 11:17–34) are ritual identity markers of the church from her first beginnings, while circumcision is not bodily but only spiritually a sign of belonging to the church (Rom 4:11; Phil 3:3). The elementary confession: ‘Jesus is Lord’ (1 Cor 12:3; cf. Acts 7:59; 10:36; 1 Cor 8:6 etc.) unites all the faithful and their congregations. It is the centre of intensive catechetical work both before and after baptism (Heb 5:11–6:3). The ‘love of neighbour’ (agape), in which God’s love is expressed and love for God is proven (cf. Gal 5:13–14; Rom 13:8–10), is focused on the community of believers, especially in the service of the poor (cf. Jas 2), but also goes beyond the boundaries of the congregation when the weak forces of the small congregations allow it (1 Thess 4:9–12; Gal 6:10; 1 Cor 13; Rom 12:9–21; 13:8–10).

Because of this conviction, faith is the central motive of Christian mission and the church (Frey et al. 2017). This faith emerges as an immense communication power (cf. Rom 1:16–17). The faith is one, all over the world, regardless of status and effort, sex and gender, origin and ethnicity, tradition and education of the faithful (Gal 3:26–28; Rom 1:8.12). It is one and the same faith that simultaneously brings about both the rootedness in different cultures that allows one to be Christian in the midst of the world, and the transcendence of culture that allows one to find God in every time and place. And it is in the church that this faith finds a home: in worship, in preaching and teaching, in diakonia and charity, and in the community of those who have communion with God the Father in the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ.

It is not uncommon for Christian communities to form in the immediate vicinity of synagogues (Acts 18:4–7). But they can also be formed in pagan culture, following the example of religious associations. The structures of pastoral leadership absorb impulses from this environment. On the one hand there is a leadership by elders, presbyteroi (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 25; 16:4: 21:18; 1 Tim 4:4; 5:17–22; Jas 5:14; 1 Pet 5:5; 2 John 1; 3 John 1; 1 Clem 54:2 etc.), on the other hand by an overseer, episkopos (Phil 1:1 [plural], 1 Tim 3:1–7); in the pastoral epistles, and in the Acts of the Apostles, tendencies can be observed to relate both forms to one another and to mediate with one another (Acts 14:23–20:17; 20:28; Titus 1:6–9).

6 Concepts of church in New Testament writings

The most vibrant sources of New Testament ecclesiology can be found in the Pauline corpus. Following the approach of historical-critical exegesis, it is possible to observe half a century of development in church theology, organization, and mission by comparing Paul’s original letters (see section 6.1) with the writings of his school (see section 6.2), especially the Epistle to the Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles (MacDonald 2010). The relations between Christology and Pneumatology, charisms and ministries, political ambitions and spiritual roots are characteristic. They strongly influenced later ecclesiology, in all denominations, albeit in different ways. In the literary, historical, and theological neighbourhood of the Pauline tradition we can place the First Epistle of Peter which, independently, conceives an ecclesiology of God’s people based on the gifts of the Spirit (see section 6.3). The Acts of the Apostles is not only a source for the reconstruction of history, but also a testimony of developed ecclesiology (see section 6.4). For many exegetes, the Johannine circle is an alternative to the other ecclesial traditions, although a closer look reveals a more differentiated picture (see section 6.5): other scriptures are equally important (O’Collins 2018). Hebrews exhorts readers to obey the ‘leaders’ who watch over the ‘souls’ of believers (Heb 13:17). In the Epistle of James, a view of the church emerges that sees the twelve tribes in the diaspora from Jerusalem (Jas 1:1) as a minority that should become the avant-garde. They must redeem this request by developing a sustainable commitment against discrimination against the poor (Jas 2:1–13). The ‘elders’ have a specific responsibility to the sick (Jas 5:14).

6.1 Pauline ecclesiology at its origins

St Paul is a church founder (Hangas 2012). His apostolic ministry is to proclaim the gospel (cf. Rom 1:1–17) in order to find faith and to build up the church. In a comparison with his alleged competitor Apollos, he coins an image for his apostolic foundational work. First, he compares both of them with gardeners who plant and water, while God ‘gave the growth’ (1 Cor 3:7–9). Second, he imagines himself as a ‘master builder’ who ‘laid the foundation’ of a house, ‘and another one is building upon it’ (1 Cor 3:10). The very foundation is Jesus Christ himself (1 Cor 3:11), and it is God who has laid it – the Apostle is doing the foundational work by following his mission and participating in the power received from God.

The temple is the house of God, built up through the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:9–17). The temple is God’s place in the midst of the world. The apostolic ministry aims to build strongly on the foundation, without the construction work ever being able to come to a conclusion as long as time lasts (1 Cor 3:10–15). The quality of the building materials may vary; the call to build up the church is essential. Moreover, those who build on the Apostolic foundation of Jesus Christ are the building itself: ‘For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple’ (1 Cor 3:17). This humanization of the temple corresponds to spiritualizing tendencies in contemporary Judaism. In the New Testament, it is both christologically based and pneumatically orientated: faith in Christ unites those who are gathered in his name (1 Cor 1:1–3) and the church consists of people who believe by virtue of the Spirit (1 Cor 3:16). The image of the church as a temple refers both to the sanctuary of God in the midst of the world, a holy place for worship and wisdom, and to the revolution of holiness, that the cross is the holy of holies (cf. Rom 3:24–25); therefore, the community of the poor (1 Cor 1:26–28) enjoys the abundance of God’s grace.

The Body of Christ is a characteristic Pauline metaphor for the church (1 Cor 12:12–17; Rom 12:4–6; Söding 2015). The Apostle himself created the concept. The tradition is rooted not in the Bible but in the political theology of the Greeks and Romans (Titus Livius, Ab Urbe condita II 32:7–12). There, it should stabilize hierarchical systems by invoking a community in which no one can live without the other. However, Paul means the opposite: the metaphor should strengthen the ‘weak’ and motivate the ‘strong’ to support others and to intensify the community. The argument for this transformation of the importance of each member for the life of the whole body is that all participate in Jesus Christ. They are baptized (1 Cor 12:13); they share the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16–17); they are inspired by the one and the same Holy Spirit who gives many different gifts (1 Cor 12:4). Therefore, compassion is the ethos of church life as the body of Christ: communion in suffering and joy, and the recognition of the special tasks and competences of other believers, are the concretization of the love of neighbour with which the church as the body of Christ must be permeated.

In Romans, Paul does not write of the church as the body of Christ, but as body in Christ. In 1 Corinthians, the genitive expresses that the body of the church is brought to life by Christ, giving the community of believers a share in his life. The point is not an identification of Christ and the church, but permanent communication. In the Letter to the Romans, Jesus Christ, the resurrected Lord, is like a room in which believers can dwell: ‘in Christ’, they find protection and closeness, warmth and security, love and hope (1 Thess 1:3; 5:8). The charisms are the spiritual energy of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:4–12, 28–31; Rom 12:6–8). Charisma is a Pauline coinage of the word, which goes back to the root charis, grace, and together with the suffix -ma expresses personal giftedness. Charisms are competences in expressing faith, and these competences are inspired. They find their place in the ecclesial community. Paul stresses the diversity of gifts: not only prophetic or enthusiastic, but diaconal and pastoral activities as well. Each charism is given to benefit others (1 Cor 12:7) and to grow the church (1 Cor 14:4). The most important charisms are those who bring the most impact for others and the whole community: ‘first apostles, second prophets, third teachers’ (1 Cor 12:28). Apostles proclaim the gospel and work as pastors of the communities they found; prophets interpret the signs of the times; teachers explain the truth of the faith. They work together with many other ‘gifts’, ‘ministries’, and ‘activities’ (1 Cor 12:4–6): catechetical, liturgical, and diaconal. Together they testify to Jesus as Lord (1 Cor 12:3) in order to deepen their inner communion and their outer mission.

The nature of the church according to Paul is ‘communion’ (koinonia). The word denotes a fellowship characterized by participation in God and His Son Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:9). He gives the believers a share in himself, and therefore they share in each other’s life and death (Rom 12:13; Phil 2:1; Phlm 1:6), in joy and suffering (1 Cor 12:26). The ecclesial celebration of that communion is the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16–17; cf. 11:23–26). All who drink from the ‘cup of blessing’ and eat from the broken bread share the blood and body of Christ: ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1 Cor 10:17). The unity of the church is community – with Christ, in faith.

The people of God is an ecclesial concept, originally connected with ekklesia, but not so prominent in Paul’s letters. Indeed, ekklesia has a political dimension, inasmuch as the word in secular Greek denotes the voting assembly of the citizen body. The Pauline concept is that all the baptized gather to pray and teach, to deliberate and decide, to stand by one another, and to take the gospel to the world: Jews and Greeks, slave and free, men and women (cf. Gal 3:28). This concretization fits the ecclesiology of the body of Christ, because the Pauline conception is about the equality of all, which is grounded in baptism, and the diversity of all, which is grounded in the charisms – with the consequence that the cooperation of all members of the body of Christ is strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit.

However, as often as Paul speaks of the ekklesia, he speaks of the ‘people of God’ which is gathered by Jesus Christ. At every point it is about the relationship with Israel; throughout, he refers to the Bible of Israel: the Torah (1 Cor 10:7 – Exod 32:6; 2 Cor 6:6 – Lev 26:16; Rom 15:10 – Deut 32:43), the prophets (Rom 9:25–26 – Hos 2:25; 2:1; Rom 10:21 – Isa 65:2), and the Psalms (Rom 11:2 – Ps 94:14). This philological finding indicates the hermeneutical care with which Paul applies the theology of the people of God to the church of God that gathers in the name of Jesus Christ. The apostle is far removed from the appropriation of Israel’s Bible by the believers in Christ, or even from the substitution of Israel by the church. In Romans 9–11, he reflects on the common roots in the covenants and promises of God (Rom 9:1–5) and the common future in the universal salvific will of God (Rom 11:25–36), but also on the dissent in the present. On the one hand, it is characterized by the church’s mission to the nations, which meets with criticism from the Jewish side because the circumcision of men is not considered obligatory; on the other hand, it is determined by the great majority of Jews saying no to Jesus, based on zeal for God, but lacking – according to Paul – the knowledge of Christ (Rom 10:2). Even though most Jews lack confession of Christ, God remains faithful to his promise and does not abandon his people (Rom 11:1–2; Ps 94:14).

The Christian church is rooted in Israel. Therefore, all believers participate in the hope of Israel, but they also have to deal with the temptations of God’s people. Referring to Hosea (2:25; 2:1), Paul reflects on the possibility and reality of the election of people who were not previously part of Israel as members of God’s people (Rom 9:25–26). Hosea reveals the deadly crises and the rebirth of Israel thanks to God’s grace, Paul reflects on the integration of the Gentiles by faith into the people of God (cf. 2 Cor 6; Lev 26:16). The horizon of hope is opened by Moses’ song of triumph: ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’ (Rom 15:10; Deut 32:43 LXX). Referring to the Torah (Exod 32:6), Paul reflects on Israel’s problem of having danced around the golden calf despite the manna, and relates it to the temptation of church members to betray God and disregard their neighbour despite the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:21). His image of ‘Israel’ is placed precisely in these references (Rom 9:6, 27, 31; 10:19, 21; 11:2, 7, 25–26). In his theology, Paul roots the Christians in the midst of God’s blessing – with a harsh critique against those who define the law as a limit to grace and the ‘works of the law’ as the ground of justification (Gal 4:21–31). However, the Paul’s hermeneutic of faith integrates the hope of salvation of ‘all Israel’ (Rom 11:26).

6.2 Ecclesial developments in the Pauline school

In the tradition of the apostle Paul, the theme of the church gains in importance. The first factor is the need to become aware of one’s identity in a multi-religious environment; second is the rapid growth of the churches, which requires new forms of organization. A paradigm of the first challenge is the letter to the Ephesians, a paradigm of the second challenge are the Pastoral Epistles.

In the letter to the Ephesians, three main changes can be seen compared to the Pauline model (Gerber 2018). (1) The apostolic founding history is drawn into the picture of the church. Whereas Paul, in 1 Corinthians, describes Christ as the foundation of the church (1 Cor 3:10–17), Ephesians describes the ‘apostles and prophets’ as the foundation, of which Christ is the cornerstone (Eph 2:20–21). The Christocentric perspective of the church remains (cf. Eph 5:23–25), but the way of the foundation of the church becomes a part of its theological nature. (2) While in 1 Corinthians the church as a body is metaphorically identified with Jesus Christ (1 Cor 12:27), and in the letter to the Romans the ecclesial body is located ‘in Christ’, the image shifts in the letter to the Ephesians so that Christ is the ‘head’ of the body (Eph 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; cf. Col 1:18; 2:19). The risen Christ and the community of the faithful do organically belong together, in a way that guarantees the true ecclesial ‘hierarchy’: the Lordship of Jesus Christ in his church and over his church. It is the love of God, in which Jesus creates the church by saving her (Eph 5:23). The ministry of the church must represent the lordship of Jesus over the church and his presence in the church. It must witness to, represent, and realize both. (3) The pastoral leadership of the church must be suitable to advance the building project of the church on the basis laid by the apostles and prophets (Eph 4:7–16). In 1 Corinthians, Paul was able to focus on showing the need for edification by each member of the church (1 Cor 3:9–17). In Ephesians, the question of how this is to be done needs to be answered. The answer has two aspects. On the one hand, the believers can trust in the creative power of the Spirit who, following the apostles, gives new gifts in the form of new ministries: evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Eph 4:11; cf. 1 Cor 12:28). On the other hand, their pastoral work must consist in strengthening all individual believers so that they can live their faith confidently and responsibly (Eph 4:13–21).

All three aspects come together in the salvation event in which Jews and Gentiles find unity in faith in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:11–22; Landi 2020). The vast majority of Jews who do not believe in Jesus, however, are left out. What is faded in is the qualitative status gain of those who previously had no citizenship rights outside of God’s people but who are now fully part of the church. Here the original Pauline concept shines through that all the baptized – irrespective of their different gifts and tasks – have full membership rights in the church. In this sense, the church is a place of peace (Eph 2:17), sustained by the love of Jesus Christ (Eph 5:25).

In the Pastoral Epistles, the leading metaphor of the church is the ‘house of God’, the temple (1 Tim 3:15). The domestic sphere is indeed important, but as a place of life for families (1 Tim 3:4–5, 12; 5:4); furthermore, there is also a strong overlap with church life in Christian households (2 Tim 1:16; 4:19; Titus 1:11). However, the image of the church itself in the Pastoral Epistles is not only explained by these social references, but also decisively by the liturgical references. The ‘church of the living God’ is marked by the presence of the one who creates his holy people for himself in the midst of the world (Jer 10:10) and declares his will with a thundering voice (Deut 5:26). This ‘house’ is the ‘pillar and foundation of the truth’ (1 Tim 3:15), that is, the salvation truth which is received in faith. ‘Foundation’ and ‘pillar’ take up the Pauline architectural metaphor, but change its frame of meaning: now the church itself is not only a witness but a sign of this truth. This sign integrates both: firstly, the clarified tradition of ‘sound teaching’ (1 Tim 1:10; 2 Tim 4:3 etc.), which is explained in incarnation-christological terms directly afterwards (1 Tim 3:16), and secondly, the organization of church leadership structures, which had been characterized directly before with reference to the bishop (episkopos) and the deacons (1 Tim 3:1–13). Both impetuses belong together: the bishop must guarantee the truth of the gospel; the gospel calls for a bishop as competent teacher who learns in order to teach, and teaches so that as many as possible are able to learn (1 Tim 4:12–16). The exclusion of women from church ministries (1 Tim 2:9–15) contradicts this approach of a theology of God’s philanthropy (Titus 3:4) but is a concession to the spirit of the times, which determined the reputation of the church in public (1 Tim 3:7) by the observance of social standards (Mitchell 2008).

6.3 The mission of the people of God in 1 Peter

1 Peter is a letter from Babylon/Rome (1 Pet 5:13) to the Christians who live in the northern parts of Asia Minor as elected exiles in the dispersion (1 Pet 1:1–2). It is their faith that sets them apart from the environment and makes them outsiders in the eyes of others (1 Pet 3:13–4:11); it is the same faith which makes them competent to answer the question of ‘the reason for the hope that is in them’ (1 Pet 3:15), to overcome reservations (1 Pet 3:13–17; 4:12–19), and strengthen inner unity (1 Pet 4:7–11). At the beginning of the letter, the writer reflects on the Christians’ journey to faith, which emerges because they have followed God’s call to holiness (1 Pet 1:13–25). The goal of this path is the ‘living stone’ which is Jesus Christ himself (1 Pet 2:4). He is the ‘cornerstone’ who God himself placed in Zion in order to save all believers (1 Pet 2:5 6; Isa 28:16). This stone was ‘rejected’ by the builders (1 Pet 2:7; Ps 118:22) but is the construction point of the entire house of worship. Those who come to this stone in faith – even if from far away – form the people of God. The author relates God’s greatest promise to the people of the exodus (Exod 19:5–6) to the Christian church: ‘You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Pet 2:9). The faithful participate in the salvation ministry of Jesus their saviour, who redeemed them so that they might bear witness to God’s grace in the midst of the world and give effect to his will in their lives. The biblical concept of the people of God is taken up and transformed as in Paul. What matters is not genealogical but spiritual belonging; access creates conversion leading to personal rebirth (1 Pet 1:23) and the people of God living out of infinite promises (1 Pet 1:10–12). As in Paul (Rom 9:25–26), the Hosean vision (Hos 1:3, 9; 2:3, 25) that those who are ‘not my people’ belong to the people is also transferred to the Christian community in 1 Peter, but, unlike Paul, without reflecting on the relationship to Judaism. There is no anti-Jewish polemic in 1 Peter, but rather a reception of central ecclesiastical motifs from Israel’s Bible into the church, which does not reflect that there is also an alternative Jewish exegesis of the same texts. The mission of the church, the proclamation of the gospel, is the reliability and competence of each member. Their common priesthood embraces their common witness, which not only proclaims God’s holiness, but participates in it (1 Pet 1:15–16; Lev 11:44; 19:1) and provides sanctification itself, in God’s power (1 Pet 2:9), beginning in their own hearts (1 Pet 3:15).

6.4 The models of church in Acts

The ecclesiology of the Acts of the Apostles (Alexander 2018) is a narrative one, because it is not encountered in theological terms but in narrated developments, sermons, and disputes; it is a remembered one, because it recalls the ground-breaking decisions of the beginning; it is programmatic, because it encourages later generations to orient themselves to the beginning, the departure to the mission in the power of the Spirit.

The picture of the church in Acts is decisively shaped by the story of Pentecost: God’s Spirit descends on the entire church; he enables them to bear public testimony so that it can be understood equally well in all the mother tongues of this world (Acts 2:1–13). In this event, Jesus’ promise begins to be fulfilled to bear witness to him throughout the world, beginning in Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, to the end of the world (Acts 1:8). According to the sermon that Peter preaches (Acts 2:14–36) in order to interpret the event of Pentecost, what the prophet Joel foretold takes place (Joel 3:1–5): ‘sons and daughters’, ‘young’ and ‘old men’, ‘servants’, and ‘handmaidens’ will become prophets.

Luke tells the story of how, step by step, the mission was spread under this sign and churches were formed. The most important thing is following Jesus (Acts 10:34–43): his message remains groundbreaking; his presence as the risen Lord carries the church; his return creates the future because time will go on and must be shaped in the spirit of Jesus. In order to guarantee this continuity as a living tradition, Luke cites Peter (Acts 2:14–36 etc.) and Paul (Acts 13:14–52), but also other preachers (Acts 8:26–40) who, with the power of their word, proclaim the story of Jesus as an eschatological culmination of the history of God in such a way that Jews and Greeks alike can understand it. Theological reflection is associated with an institutional organization. The twelve apostles (Acts 1:15–26) are of fundamental importance, witnesses such as Barnabas, Paul, Stephen, and Philip come along. The transition to the next generation is organized by presbyters (Acts 14:23; cf. Acts 11:30; Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 21, 23; Acts 16:4; Acts 20:17) and bishops (Acts 20:28).

In following Jesus, one of the characteristics of the church is its rootedness in Israel (Acts 3:11–28), notwithstanding the conflicts that are fought with the leaders of Judaism – first the chief priests, then the Pharisees: the Torah remains valid and is fulfilled in the spirit of Jesus (Acts 24:14); prophecy reveals the signs of the times as Jesus himself understood the prophets (Acts 26:22); the Psalms (Luke 24:44) continue to be prayed, also in the liturgy of the church.

Following Jesus is realized in the community of goods of the community of Jerusalem (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37). For Luke, they realize in an exemplary manner what Jesus taught about dealing with private property in solidarity (Luke 16:9–13). Orientation to Jesus presupposes fidelity to the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:42), the ideal witnesses of Jesus (Acts 1:15–26), and is manifested in the proclamation of the kingdom of God united with the proclamation of Jesus’ messiahship (Acts 8:2).

6.5 The Johannine community

The Johannine writings belong to a Johannine community of faith (Lincoln 2018), a community which is led by an elder (2 John 1; 3 John 1); this form of leadership fits very well with other developments in the early congregations, which are inspired by the organizational forms of Jewish synagogues (1 Tim 5:17–22; Titus 1:5; 1 Pet 5:1; Jas 5:14; Acts 11:30; 15:2, 6, 22–23; 20:17–38; cf. Exod 18:25; Num 11). However, it is decisive for the Johannine tradition that a self-confident community speaks out, saying ‘we’ with emphasis, when they speak on the one hand of their faith in Christ (John 1:14, 16) and on the other of their fellowship with eyewitnesses to the story of Jesus (John 19:26; 21:24; cf. 1 John 1:1–4). Their close relationship with each other is shaped by their shared faith in Jesus Christ. Even if it is not a historically reliable self-attribution, the literary staging of an ecclesial community rooted in fellowship with Jesus is significant.

In the Farewell Discourses of John’s Gospel, Jesus himself addresses this relationship and defines it as friendship (John 15:12–17). It is an intense friendship between unequals: Jesus is the ‘Lord’ who washes the feet of his disciples like a servant (cf. John 13:1–20). He offers friendship to his disciples; an asymmetrical relationship of reciprocity (Zumstein 2007: 106–111). They prove themselves to be his friends if they take to heart the commandment of love that he gives them on their way. This friendship strengthens the unity of the disciples with Jesus against the hate of the ‘world’ (John 15:18–16:4) and realizes on Earth the union between the Father and the Son in which the promise of Jesus for his own is full participation (John 15:6–11; 17). The ecclesiology of friendship correlates with the ethos of friendship which, according to Luke, is realized in the first community in Jerusalem (Acts 2:44; 4:32). This diaconal praxis marks the communicative interfaces with the environment, which likewise holds the ethos of friendship in high esteem and deepens the communion with one another that comes from participating in the friendship given by Jesus.

The intimacy that is part of friendship is also linked to the traditional image of the flock following its shepherd – God himself (Ps 23). Jesus reveals himself as the Good Shepherd ‘who lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). When he has come, ‘the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out […] and the sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (John 10:3–4). The archaic symbol of the shepherd and the flock (Zimmermann 2004) roots Johannine ecclesiology in the Old Testament witness and opens it up to Greek culture, which knows kings as shepherds who gather their people – but without being able to unite them with God. Therefore, the leadership of Jesus has its own quality, shaped by his ministry of salvation. Authority is ministry and ministry is sharing in God’s love.

7 Perspectives of biblical ecclesiology

The Christian Bible does not give a uniform answer to the four main questions mentioned in the abstract above – (1) What is the relationship of ‘church’ to Israel and to contemporary Judaism? (2) What is its relationship to Jesus and his call to discipleship? (3) How did Christianity develop in its earliest times, and what structures of community building and leadership did it develop? (4) What images and motifs of the church emerge; what theological concepts are developed to represent the nature and mission of the church? – but neither does it become entangled in insoluble contradictions. It creates a dense network of different points of view and perspectives that correspond to each other, because it is not the church that is the ultimate horizon of theology, but the Kingdom of God.

(1) It is common to all New Testament writings that the church is rooted in Israel; only Marcion wanted to tear the testaments apart – with the consequence of also rejecting most New Testament writings. It is the hope of Jesus and Paul that there will be a common future of salvation according to God’s will (Matt 23:39; Luke 13:35; Rom 11:25–33). At present, the New Testament records numerous conflicts between those who believe in Jesus and the vast majority of Jews. Many traditions are polemical, not least because of internal Jewish controversies. Paul, after all, reflects that it is zeal for God that makes Jews say no to Jesus (Rom 10:2).

(2) For all New Testament writings, the orientation on Jesus is decisive: he is the risen Lord who is the promised Messiah, the prophet of Galilee, the teacher of his disciples. The New Testament mirrors the richness of Jesus’ gospel which is in dialogue with the Bible of Israel. The basic orientation is the confidence in Jesus’ salvation mission; the consequence is following his commands. According to the Jesus tradition, the Kingdom of God is the horizon of the church.

(3) In the light of the New Testament writings, the founding and growing of the church is the core of God’s salvation will in time for eternity according to his mission for Israel. But in the eyes of most contemporaries, the church is only a very small minority – if it was noticed at all. This tension characterizes the mission of the early church. It leads her to new forms of congregations in the neighbourhood of synagogues and according to the model of cultural associations. Missionary growth and the desire for acceptance in ancient society explain the concept of leadership by bishops assisted by deacons and associated with presbyters, which later became normative. It was bought at the high price of pushing women back from ministry roles.

(4) The New Testament images and concepts of church are influential and orientating until today. The main challenge for ecumenism is the relationship between unity and diversity in the church. From the confession of the one and only God (Deut 6:4–5) follows a strong impulse towards the unity of the church (cf. John 17). In accordance with her faith in Jesus Christ, this unity cannot remain merely an idea or a postulate that only finds its fulfilment in the hereafter, in heaven; rather, it must also be realized on Earth – not necessarily perfectly, but substantially. Diversity is the inner form of this unity, its richness. How the relationship is to be determined is not simply fixed, but is the subject of ecumenical dialogues and inner-church convictions. The Christian Bible guides the search for a way in which denominational differences should not promote strife but serve peace.

The New Testament breakthrough is to distinguish between ‘church’ and ‘world’. This distinction creates freedom for both ecclesial self-determination of believers and the autonomy of cultures of all people of good will. However, it does not lead to isolation; for, according to the high priestly prayer, the church is ‘in’, though not ‘of the world’ (cf. John 17:11, 14, 16). The main challenge is to connect the personal freedom of faith with the mission of the whole church in the discipleship of Jesus.


Copyright Thomas Söding ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Avis, Paul (ed.). 2018. The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Lohfink, Gerhard. 1998. Braucht Gott die Kirche? Zur Theologie des Volkes Gottes. Freiburg: Herder.
    • Minear, Paul. 2007. Images of the Church in the New Testament. Cambridge: James Clarke. First published 1960.
    • Roloff, Jürgen. 1993. Die Kirche im Neuen Testament. Grundrisse zum Neuen Testament 10. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck.
    • Schmeller, Thomas, Martin Ebner, and Rudolf Hoppe (eds). 2010. Neutestamentliche Ämtermodelle im Kontext. Quaestiones disputatae 239. Freiburg: Herder.
    • Schnackenburg, Rudolf. 1974. The Church in the New Testament. London: Burns & Oates. First published in German in 1966.
    • Schweizer, Eduard. 1961. Church Order in the New Testament. London: SCM. First published in German in 1959.
    • Söding, Thomas. 2007. Jesus und die Kirche. Was sagt das Neue Testament? Freiburg: Herder.
    • Wright, N. T. 1992. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
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